Deep peace in techno-utopia
2.Brand on the run
NOTE: Here's the debate on Channel 4 that George Monbiot is writing about
Here's the programme the debate is about
1.Deep Peace in Techno-Utopia
Monbiot.com, November 5 2010
*A new film on Channel 4 disses the greens while dodging the issue of power.
So Channel 4 has done it again. Over the past 20 years, it has broadcast a series of polemics about the environment, and most of them have been fiercely anti-green(1). On other issues Channel 4's films attack all sides. Not on the environment.
Last night it aired yet another polemic: What the Green Movement Got Wrong. This one was presented by two people who still consider themselves green: Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas. It's not as rabid as the other films. But, like its predecessors, it airs blatant falsehoods about environmentalists and fits snugly into the corporate agenda. The film is based on Brand's book, Whole Earth Discipline(2). He argues that greens, by failing to embrace the right technologies, have impeded both environmental and social progress. Not everything he says is wrong, but his account is infused with magical thinking, in which technology is expected to solve all political and economic problems. This view, now popular among green business consultants, is sustained by ignoring the issue of power.
The film starts, for example, by blaming greens for the failure of environmental policies. But, as a paper published in the journal Environmental Politics shows, green movements have continued to grow, reaching more people every year. What has changed is that a powerful counter-movement, led by corporate-funded thinktanks, has waged war on green policies(3). "This counter-movement has been central to the reversal of US support for environmental protection, both domestically and internationally." A similar shift has taken place in other countries.
Many of the think tanks were set up in the 1970s by businesses and multi-millionaires seeking to limit employment rights and prevent the distribution of wealth. After the collapse of Soviet communism, their funders' attention switched from the red menace to the green menace. This lobby had access to money and government that the greens could only dream of. For environmentalists to blame each other for the lack of progress is to betray a startling absence of context.
But Brand's vision depends on forgetting the context. He maintains that we will save the biosphere by adopting nuclear energy, GM crops and geo-engineering, and paints a buoyant picture of a world running like clockwork on these new technologies. Without a critique of power, his techno-utopianism is pure fantasy. Nuclear electricity may indeed be part of the solution, but the real climate challenge is not getting into new technologies, but getting out of old ones. This means confronting some of the world's most powerful forces, a theme with no place in Brand's story.
Similarly, though the world has had food surpluses for many years, almost a billion people are permanently hungry, while enough grain to feed them several times over is given to animals and used to make biofuels. This is not because technology is lacking, but because the poor lack economic and political power. The film's proposal that we should switch to technologies which tend to be monopolised by large conglomerates - could exacerbate this problem.
Brand's attempts to avoid conflicts with power are understandable: he founded a corporate consultancy called the Global Business Network(4). But the ideology he has embraced has brought him closer to the corporate lobby groups than he might be aware.
For example, the film maintains that, as a result of campaigning by groups such as Greenpeace, the pesticide DDT was banned worldwide. The result was that malaria took off in Africa, "killing millions"*. Just one problem: DDT for disease control wasn’t banned (if you don't believe me, read Annex B of the 2001 Stockholm Convention(5)) and Greenpeace didn't call for it to happen(6). The ban story was a myth put about by lobbyists to discredit the greens(7). In the film, Stewart Brand says he wants greens to admit it when they're wrong. I challenged him to admit that he got the DDT story wrong before the film aired. I received no reply(8).
Brand and Lynas present themselves as heretics. But their convenient fictions chime with the thinking of the new establishment: corporations, think tanks, neoliberal politicians. The true heretics are those who remind us that neither social nor environmental progress are possible unless power is confronted.
Environmentalism is not just about replacing one set of technologies with another. Technological change is important, but it will protect the biosphere only if we also tackle issues such as economic growth, consumerism and corporate power. These are the challenges the green movement asks us to address. These are the issues the film ignores.
*This refers to the pre-transmission version, whose transcript I had. A couple of hours before the programme was broadcast, and after this article went to press, the script was changed as a result of a complaint by Greenpeace about its defamatory nature. The DDT passage remained wrong in several respects however. Brand's book maintains that "DDT was banned worldwide", and that the "ban" may have killed 20 million children.
2. Stewart Brand, 2010. Whole Earth Discipline. Atlantic Books, London.
3. Peter Jacques; Riley Dunlap; Mark Freeman, 2008. The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism. Environmental Politics, 17:3, 349-385. DOI: 10.1080/09644010802055576.
6. Greenpeace has repeatedly contacted the lobbyists circulating this myth to explain that it didn't call for a ban on DDT for disease-control purposes, but they keep repeating it.
8. Email sent at 11.22am on 3rd November, and, to other addresses, later that afternoon
2.Is Stewart Brand the New Ian Plimer?
Monbiot.com, November 5 2010
*Despite challenging the environmental movement to admit when it gets things wrong, he seems unable to do so himself.
Last night's film on Channel 4 - What the Green Movement Got Wrong - was loosely based on Stewart Brand's book, Whole Earth Discipline. In the film, Stewart issued the following challenge:
"I would like to see an environmental movement that’s comfortable noticing when it's wrong and announcing when it's wrong."
I agree with that. But unfortunately, as far as Stewart is concerned, it appears to apply only to OTHER environmentalists.
The producers of the film had to change the script just a couple of hours before it was broadcast, as a result of the false and actionable accusations it made concerning the pesticide DDT. Up till that point the film made the following claims:
1. That Greenpeace campaigned for a worldwide ban on DDT.
2. That this ban was achieved.
3. That, as a result, millions of people died of malaria. These deaths were attributed by the programme to green campaigners.
Just before the programme aired, some of this was stripped out, but it still creates the impression that there was a global ban on DDT for all purposes.
It's simply not true. DDT for disease control has never been banned worldwide. Instead, the 2001 Stockholm Convention regulates its use, prevents it from being used in agriculture (which accelerates the development of resistance by malarial mosquitoes) and encourages the development of alternatives. It expresses the hope that its use might become unnecessary so that it can eventually be eliminated, but nowhere in the convention is there any mention of a ban.
Nor has Greenpeace demanded that the use of DDT for disease control should be banned.
So where did the film get this story from? Stewart Brand. His book contains the following passage:
"Environmentalists were right to be inspired by marine biologist Rachel Carson's book on pesticides, Silent Spring, but wrong to place DDT in the category of Absolute Evil (which she did not). ”¦ In an excess of zeal that Carson did not live to moderate, DDT was banned worldwide, and malaria took off in Africa. Quoted in a 2007 National Geographic article, Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health said, 'The ban on DDT may have killed 20 million children.'"
Brand, in turn, appears to have fallen for a myth generated by corporate-funded lobby groups, as John Quiggin and Tim Lambert document in Prospect magazine.
On Wednesday, I sent Stewart Brand the following challenge by email:
"In the programme you say 'I want to see an environment movement that can admit when it's wrong.' On this we are agreed. So will you admit that you were wrong to claim, in both the programme and your book, that there was a worldwide ban on DDT? ”¦ There was in fact no such ban for disease-control uses, as you can see from the text of the 2001 Stockholm Convention (see Annex B).
I'm inviting you, between now and 1pm UK time tomorrow, to demonstrate that you too can admit you are wrong, by sending me an email repudiating your claim that DDT for disease control was banned."
I received no reply.
Last night during the television debate that followed the film, I repeated my challenge to Stewart:
"Will you do what you're telling us to do, and admit that you've got it wrong?”
"We should probably compare sources which will be hard live on television, but yeah, let’s do that.”
This morning he wrote the following to me (I'll place our full correspondence on my website):
"Most of the sources for my book are online at www.sbnotes.com. (Haven't finished all the chapters yet, including p 219, where my one paragraph on DDT is.) ”¦ Your argument may be with Gwadz rather than me. Your Stockholm Convention link seems to make my point rather than yours. It is dated 2001. Carson's book came out in 1962."
Here is the full list of sources given on his website for the relevant chapter:
"The annotated version of this chapter will be completed in the coming weeks.”
Given that Whole Earth Discipline was first published in 2009, that’s weak to say the least.
So I replied to Stewart this morning, as follows:
"Are you proposing that there was some international instrument other than the 2001 Stockholm Convention under which “DDT was banned worldwide”? If so, I would be fascinated to hear about it. You must surely know which instrument you had in mind when you wrote that sentence.
Your website carries no footnotes at all for the chapter you quote from, as I’m sure you are aware. You told me last night that we should “compare sources”. I have given you mine. Where are yours?
The test I have given you is to see whether you are able as you demand environmentalists must be to admit it when you get something wrong. So far you are failing that test.”
In other words, we appear to have an Ian Plimer situation developing here. I'll keep you posted as it progresses.
[You can view Geoerge Monbiot's correspondence with Stewart Brand here: http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/11/05/correspondence-with-stewart-brand/#more-1300 ]